As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong has written in Foreign Affairs, “In recent years, people have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific, as if that were sure to be the case. I disagree with this view.” The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made that argument to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. More than 30 years later, Deng has proved prescient. After decades of extraordinary economic success, Asia today is the world’s fastest-growing region. Within this decade, Asian economies will become larger than the rest of the world’s economies combined, something that has not been true since the 19th century. Yet even now, Deng’s warning holds: “an Asian century is neither inevitable nor foreordained”.
In the third decade of the 21st century, it is a tragedy that doubts have increased and not diminished about the inevitability of the Asian Century. A heavy part of the responsibility for this rests on two leaders, President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. The two have had several meetings, much more between Indian and Chinese leaders than at any other time, and have become friends. However, this has not prevented tension between the two countries, in large part because Beijing has moved away from the suggestion of Zhou En-lai and Deng Xiaoping that the Line of Actual Control should be made the border between India and China. With all its other neighbours, China has settled its borders. The McMahon Line was accepted in the case of Myanmar. The Line of Actual Control was agreed to as the boundary with Russia. Had the border issue not been settled between Moscow and Beijing, it is doubtful that the relationship between the two giants would have been as cordial as it has become under Presidents Xi and Putin. The pervasive influence of GHQ Rawalpindi over the thinking of the Central Military Commission about India is nowhere more in evidence than in the fact that China has thus far refused to settle the border issue on the lines suggested by Zhou and Deng. Just as with Russia, the Line of Actual Control should be the international border between China and India. Both Xi and Modi need to devote personal attention towards ensuring that such an agreement gets worked out before some unfortunate incident or accident tips the two countries towards another conflict. If in 1962 India assumed China would not go to war, in 2020 it appears that Beijing believes that India will not go to war, no matter how relentlessly a “forward policy” is being carried out on the borders by the PLA, which has now welcomed an ISI officer into its headquarters. A war between the US and China would be a disaster for the world. Another conflict between China and India would be a tragedy for Asia. Both should be avoided. Indeed, Asia must become a Zone of Peace, at least between the major powers.
In such a context, the two sides need to establish a high-level mechanism that is 24/7 focused on resolving the border issue. This is too important to just be a passing interest, which usually consists of infrequent meetings by high officials at scenic locations. Why should the generation of Xi and Modi not bring about a border settlement between two countries despite the failure of earlier generations? Only such a resolution can ensure that the relationship between India and China get placed on the correct track.